Case Studies, Short Posts

Why Google Struggles With Hardware

Smart-Devices-On-Conference-Table

Amidst much of the criticism and skepticism that Google has faced over the years, I have always had a lot of respect for how the search engine has evolved. Google has made several natural, and sometimes questionable, extensions to its product portfolio en route to a market cap of over $900B. In particular, I’d like to discuss their interest in hardware.

I must admit that I can hardly ever begin an online search without Google Search or avoid infotainment via YouTube. Don’t even get me started on the importance of Google Ads and Analytics platforms these days.

But, when it comes to hardware, I just can’t seem to form a connection. Being a gadget geek, I was a little curious when I discovered that of all devices I’ve bought, used, sold or stored away, a Google device wasn’t amongst them.

Now, when you think about it, Google isn’t a hardware company. It’s a search engine that generates almost all its revenue from ad sales, 84% to be more precise (Q2, 2019). The remainder of which comes from Google Play, Cloud and its Hardware division – mobile phones, tablets, laptops, smart home devices etc.

Google’s hardware journey has composed of a mix of partnerships, acquisitions, spin-offs and in-house development. Its portfolio looks a bit like this.

Google-Hardware-Product-Portfolio

I have deliberately organized sub-brands according to a distinction I feel makes more sense because Google tends to mix up the Crome/book/pixel theme into a format that is confusing and disconnected in my opinion. More on this later.

Anyway, to cure my curiosity and break my personal non-affinity code, I stopped by Best Buy to play around with the latest Google products. Their mobile devices have come a long way from what I remember, but, they still fall short of counterparts. While I have no reason to doubt the capability and usefulness of the devices, I have to question the serious lack of attention to aesthetics. They aren’t very exciting. The laptops are a few stops better and their home devices seem to own their class.

Google mobile phones have not made a dent in the worldwide market, otherwise ruled by Samsung (31.5%), Apple (22%), Huawei (10%) and Xiaomi (7.8%). In laptops, it trails HP (26.6%), Lenovo (18.3%), Dell (16.75%), Apple (8.92%), Asus (8.4%) and Acer (7.5%). Yes, I’m aware of their headway in education.

In tablets, it’s a no-show against Apple (66.3%), Samsung (17.3%), Amazon (3.8%) and Huawei (1.3%). The Nest and Google Home line of products on the other hand are appealing and reflective of their market shares.

However, we do have to make some concessions, because frankly, Google’s brand equity in hardware has some distance to cover. It’s also a little late to an extremely competitive party. In addition, Google’s privacy concerns continue to haunt them. Hence an uphill battle awaits.

Here are some of the things I feel Google needs to work on.

  • Aesthetically, Google seems to have devoted limited resources to design elements used in the product discovery phase. Having tons of information on how users use mobile devices or what they want from them isn’t all. Humans are visual beings.
  • The price tags are on par or within striking distance of competitors who are more entrenched, and quite simply, have more on offer at similar price points.
  • Google’s issue with privacy and personal data usage plague its foray into hardware products as users see them as Google’s prying eyes. Google needs to tackle the elephant in the room and soon. FYI, Apple’s marcom team has used this to their advantage.
  • Google employs several brand portfolio architectures within the hardware division as opposed to settling on a stable convention. Remember, internal understanding does not always mirror external comprehension.
  • In terms of packaging, it’s almost clear where Google got its cues from. But to create its own uniqueness, Google needs to ‘think different-ly‘.
  • Android is both a boon and a bane. With every other mobile phone on the market sporting the same OS, it’s hard to develop any sort of individuality. Yes, it makes perfect sense from a developer standpoint, but maybe some personalization is needed.

On a side note, when I watched “Life at Google” on Youtube, it seemed obvious that members on the hardware team were very concerned about engineering a good product. The trouble is, engineers tend to get lost in practicality leaving the opportunity to push some boundaries on the table.

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